WASHINGTON - Defying a veto threat from President Barack Obama, the House approved legislation Friday that would allow insurance companies to renew individual health insurance policies and sell similar ones to new customers next year even if the coverage does not provide all the benefits and consumer protections required by the new health care law.
The vote was 261-157, with 39 Democrats bucking their party leadership and the White House to vote in favor of the bill.
Hours after the vote, Obama and top aides met for over an hour with insurance executives Friday afternoon after industry leaders complained Thursday that they had been blindsided by a White House reversal on canceled policies. The president described the meeting as a "brainstorming" session about how to make sure changes to the health care law go smoothly.
The insurance representatives, from more than a dozen companies, said they would work with the administration to protect the financial viability of the new marketplaces, but did not say how they would do that. Afterward, Karen Ignagni, the president of America's Health Insurance Plans, a trade group, said it was a "very productive" meeting, but would not go into detail.
The legislation approved by the House would go further than the solution announced Thursday by Obama, who said he would temporarily waive some requirements of the law and allow insurers to renew "current policies for current enrollees" for a year.
The outlook for the legislation is unclear in the Senate, where Democrats running for re-election in 2014 are looking for a way to help consumers facing the loss of insurance policies that do not meet requirements of the 2010 law.
Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, D-La., was one of the first Democrats to break with the White House and offer her own proposal, which would allow people to keep their current plans indefinitely. However, after the president's turnabout Thursday, many Senate Democrats said they were waiting to see if additional legislation was necessary, and quick action in the Senate is not expected.
Many of the Democrats who supported the bill are facing tough re-election fights, and expressed deep frustration with how the administration had handled the early stages of Obama's signature health care law. Rep. Nick J. Rahall II, D-W.Va., who voted for the legislation, said that the White House deserved an "F-minus" for its botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act.
"I'm disgusted about it," Rahall said. "I think heads should roll downtown. Whoever was responsible or may have known that this was going to occur should no longer be employed."
Rep. Ron Barber, D-Ariz., who also joined Republicans in voting for the bill, was equally scathing, calling the rollout "a disaster."
Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., the chief sponsor of the House bill, said it would fulfill a promise that Obama had made to the American people and then broken.
"In the last three years," Upton said, "the president personally promised that, if people liked their current health care plan, they could keep it 'no matter what.' But cancellation notices are now arriving in millions of mailboxes across the country. It's cancellation today, sticker shock tomorrow."
Upton, the chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, belittled Obama's proposal, saying it was offered at the last minute, "as the administration's allies in Congress panicked."
Senior Democrats criticized the Upton legislation as a ploy that could unravel the entire health care law.
"Don't pretend you care about the American people's health care here," said Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Pa. "You just want to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Democrats are not going to let you do that."
Robert Zirkelbach, a spokesman for America's Health Insurance Plans, said insurers, in discussing the bill, had had "significant concerns on how it would work operationally."
House Democrats on Friday used a procedural maneuver to offer a plan of their own called "Landrieu lite," intended to build on the president's fix and offer their members additional political cover. The Democratic proposal, which was rejected by Republicans, would have allowed people who like their current plans to retain them for a year. Under the Democratic proposal, unlike with Upton's bill, insurers would not be allowed to sell plans that previously faced cancellation to new customers.
Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the No. 2 House Republican, said insurers should be allowed to sell new policies like those now in force because it was extremely difficult for consumers to obtain coverage through the federal website, HealthCare.gov.
But Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., said Upton's bill was an attempt to "drag us back to the bad old days of the American health care system."
The White House said Obama would veto the House bill if it got to him. The bill, the administration said, would reverse progress made in extending coverage to the uninsured.